When I was growing up in the 1980s, Christianity always appeared to my young eyes to be very tribal. Christians were very keen to emphasise their differences, drawn mostly along denominational and doctrinal lines. Issues such as adult/child baptism, the role of women in the church, whether the gifts of the Spirit still existed and various interpretations of passages in the Bible were sticking points that separated Christians. Churches from different denominations rarely did much together unless there was a big event or initiative such as a Billy Graham mission. Ecumenism was something of a dirty word that few were interested in.
Now, my perceptions could have been wrong and it many have been partly down to where I lived, but I don’t think that would fully explain it. Not so long ago I would hear people identifying themselves as Baptist or Evangelical or Anglican when asked about their beliefs. If I ask someone the same question today, they are more likely to respond that they are a Christian first of all and then if you probe a bit deeper they might describe themselves as Church of England for example, but more often they’ll just talk about the type of church they go to and leave it at that.
As I’ve observed the changes in relationships between Christians and churches over the course of my life,I am convinced that we are witnessing a significant move of the Holy Spirit that is breaking down the barriers and healing some of the past wounds that Christians have inflicted on each other. Ecumenical bonds are growing, not in a limp way that you might get at an ecumenical church service, which can often be dull, lowest common denominator affairs. Instead this new ecumenism is being manifested in practical ways that build on common ground and a willingness to put aside differences in order to be an effective witness. In my local town, which is a fairly small market town, the churches together are running Town Pastors and Healing on the Streets. There have been prayer rooms and Passion plays and when the town had its first carnival two weeks ago the churches had the leading float. In other towns and cities there is much, much more going on. Often these are a grass-root initiatives not implemented by church leaders, but by groups of Christians with a common vision to serve God irrespective of their background.
However, what makes this move of God more evident and powerful is the way we are not just seeing it at a local level, but also through the words and actions of prominent church leaders nationally and internationally.
Pope Francis is well known for his commitment to building bridges between the Catholic church and other denominations and faiths, having spent much time in open and sustained dialogue when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In the UK we’ve recently seen Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of The Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom attend and speak at this month’s Church of England General Synod. At this year’s influential Holy Trinity Brompton leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall, the Austrian Cardinal Schönborn was a keynote speaker and warmly welcomed. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby also spoke at the event. In an interview with Charles Moore at the weekend Welby gave an insight into his passion for unity and reconciliation in the Church:
‘Because [Justin Welby] came to faith dramatically, he has few prejudices about which tradition to inhabit. “I am a spiritual magpie,” he says. As well as speaking in tongues (a Protestant practice), he adores the sacrament of the eucharist (a Catholic one). He also says the morning and evening office, Book of Common Prayer version, in the chapel of the palace, every day.
‘The routine of regular prayer is immensely important in overcoming the ups and downs of human moods, he thinks. For his own spiritual discipline, Justin Welby uses Catholic models – the contemplation and stability of Benedictines, and the rigorous self-examination of St Ignatius. And, in a choice that could not possibly have been made since the 16th century – until now – the Archbishop’s spiritual director is Fr Nicolas Buttet, a Roman Catholic ‘priest.
‘The Archbishop recently visited the new Pope, Francis, and was thrilled. “I think he is extraordinary. Unpredictable. He’s not John XXIII or anyone else. He’s Francis. He has deep humility and a consciousness of the complexity of things. He has Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality.”
‘It is spirituality that the two men share, and it is overcoming the divisions of 500 years: “One of the most exciting trends in western Christianity is that the Spirit of God is drawing Christians together.”
‘Where will his discussions with the Pope lead? “I haven’t a clue,” he says, disarmingly. He thinks that the ordination of women bishops, though he vigorously supports it, is the biggest obstacle to unity with Rome, but he also believes that both Churches now accept that they must “walk together’’
Justin Welby once again addressed Christian unity when he spoke at last week’s Methodist Conference at Westminster Central Hall in London. This is an extract of his speech:
“Let me quote the last few verses of John 17: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
“As my predecessor Archbishop Rowan said, “Unity is a gift and a creation of God through the Holy Spirit”. If we look at the work of God and the nature of God, the nature of the Spirit of God from Genesis 1 onwards and especially in Psalms like Psalm 18 and the later chapters of Job, the nature of the Spirit of God is integration and creation. Sin and the power of evil create a pattern of destruction and disintegration. Human pride makes room for destruction and division and that is above all recognisable in the church. Diarmaid MacCulloch in his history of the reformation shows in the 1540s and 50s and 60s several opportunities for avoiding the permanent catastrophe of the reformation, opportunities spoilt by pride and a desire for power.
“The great division with Methodism was inspired more than anything by Anglican pride and episcopal status. Looking back the lessons are clear. Pride releases spiritual forces of destruction as we remove from ourselves the uniting impact of the Holy Spirit of God. Visible unity releases treasure. The full treasures of the unity of the church, the great treasure that is envisaged by Jesus in his prayer in John chapter 17 is only obtainable when we all unlock together rather than separately. There is a fresh expression when we are united, of the reality of God. And because the Spirit works in the structures of the church as in many other places, our experience of the work of the Spirit and of our unity is enabled by process and lived in the experience of process. Coming together in our process of unity is of immense importance in opening the way for the work of God among us.
“Resourcing the search for the common good has to start with spirituality; the visible spiritual union of the people of God, not unanimity, but profound unity. That leads to reconciliation and modelling the reality of the gift of God in the Spirit which we find in the letter to the Ephesians. In reconciliation we find ourselves not held together, but driven out in love, constrained by the love of God, overwhelmed into being those whose lives lead to human reconciliation. And it is not coincidence or mere pragmatism that for example so many food banks are ecumenical. It is not merely out of a need to share the burden, but it is out of the work of the Spirit often unnoticed by us. So the resourcing of the common good is essentially from God and starts with theology – the theology of a God of integration and creativity and it is released in ecclesiology. We want to be the revolutionary, society changing, transforming extraordinary, Spirit filled church of God.”
Psalm 133 verse 1 says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!’ All Christians have far more in common than we do differences and yet so often we have used our differences and disagreements to drive us apart rather than making space for them and exercising a level of grace towards each other. In doing so we have paid a heavy price. As God moves to break down these barriers and bring increased unity, so the Church as a whole is increasingly blessed, and as a result of this blessing it is able to reach out into the world an be a blessing itself to others through its witness and actions. Jesus knew how important it would be for his church to be united in its love of God and each other if it is to be effective in its mission. Our job is to remember that this church God has created is here for His glory and not our own and therefore we all have a responsibility to follow His lead and do what we can to bring God and His church the honour and respect they so rightly deserve.